March 14, 2024

Senator Warren, Rep. Garamendi Demand Answers from U.S. Air Force on Mismanagement of Sentinel and Minuteman III ICBM Programs

“The extraordinary cost and delay of the Sentinel program demands the Air Force properly and honestly provide clarity on every part of the program as the Department considers the requirements of the Nunn-McCurdy provisions… nothing about this program should be seen as predetermined and we must evaluate every decision to determine if the expense truly provides for the national defense” 

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. – Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Representative John Garamendi (D-Calif.) a member of the House Armed Services Committee, sent a letter seeking answers from Air Force officials about the mismanagement of the Sentinel program, a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program consisting of new long-range missiles and replacement or enhancement of silos, launch command centers, and command and control facilities for the ICBM force.

The program has a cost overrun of at least 37%, costing taxpayers over $36 billion more than initial estimates, and is more than two years behind schedule. Senior Air Force officials have expressed unconditional support for the Sentinel program, including saying they will “make the trades it takes” to keep the program funded.

Under the Nunn-McCurdy Act, an unexpected excess cost of this size requires the Secretary of Defense to conduct an analysis of the root-cause of the cost increase and certify that the program is essential to national security to prevent its termination. 

“The Air Force has now admitted that the low-cost projection that was used to secure congressional approval and lock the program in was made with incomplete data,” the lawmakers wrote

The program also lacks some of the basic building blocks for good program management, including the delayed creation of an integrated master schedule, which, as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted, helps “anticipate risks to the program and plan mitigation strategies” and helps managers “determine if the program’s parameters are realistic and achievable.” Additionally, the Air Force’s aggressive and compressed schedule to roll out the program led them to rely on immature technology. 

The Sentinel program would replace the Minuteman III program ICBM, which had been deemed viable until the mid-2030s by Air Force leaders with no potential extension of its service life. However, this timeline is inconsistent with the Air Force’s plans to continue to maintain the Minuteman III program for the next 15 to 20 years while the Sentinel program is rolled out in stages. Even assuming the Air Force is able to meet its intended timeline, the Air Force must rely on the Minuteman III until at least 2036. 

“The recent Nunn-McCurdy breach underscores the critical need for dramatically improved planning, analysis, and transparency,” the lawmakers write. “It is imperative that the Air Force think critically and creatively about the way forward. Given its scale and expense, nothing about this program should be seen as predetermined and we must evaluate every decision to determine if the expense truly provides for the national defense.” 

The lawmakers are requesting answers about the Minuteman III service life extension program and its role in the transition to the Sentinel System by March 27. 

Senator Warren has been a strong advocate for oversight on defense spending and accountability for mismanagement of taxpayer funds: 

  • In February 2024, at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), Senator Warren questioned General Anthony J. Cotton, USAF, Commander of United States Strategic Command about significant cost overruns and mismanagement of the Sentinel program. 

  • In November 2023, after reports that defense contractor TransDigm refused to provide cost and pricing information needed to prevent price gouging of taxpayers and the DoD, Senator Warren and Representative Garamendi sent letters to the DoD and TransDigm, pressing them to provide transparency on cost and pricing data to ensure that taxpayers aren’t being overcharged for expensive DoD contracts. 

  • In October 2023, at a SASC hearing, Senator Warren highlighted the costs of starting a new nuclear arms race.

  • In July 2023, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, Senator Warren called out the Department of Defense for wasting billions in taxpayers dollars due to price gouging by defense contractors for services and in health care, and identified opportunities for cost savings when DoD buys personnel-related goods and services. 

  • In July 2023, Senator Warren sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Director of the Defense Health Agency, Lieutenant General Telita Crosland, regarding a series of DoD Inspector General reports finding that the DoD is failing to prevent price gouging and overpayments to contractors in the TRICARE health program.

  • In June 2023, Senator Warren, Senator Mike Braun, and Representative Garamendi reintroduced the bipartisan Stop Price Gouging the Military Act which would close loopholes in current acquisition laws, tie financial incentives for contractors to performance, and provide the Department of Defense the information necessary to prevent future rip-offs.

  • In May 2023, Senator Warren and Representative Garamendi sent letters to Boeing, TransDigm, and the Department of Defense, calling out the defense contractors for their refusal to provide cost and pricing data to the Department of Defense (DoD), as required by law. The lawmakers also called on DoD to take action to address these contractors’ refusals to provide cost and pricing data. 

  • In March 2022, at a SASC hearing, Senator Warren criticized DoD failing to consider alternatives to the Sentinel program in order to justify unsustainable nuclear weapons spending.